by Ann Wai-Yee Kwong
From the Editor: Ann Wai-Yee Kwong is a nineteen-year-old student who immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong in 2000 and lived in Los Angeles until this past year. She is an alumna of John Marshall High School in LA and currently attends the University of California at Berkeley on a four-year scholarship from the Gates Millennium Scholars Program. No matter how useful text-to-speech technology is for blind people, it is not the same as reading visually or tactilely—the advantages of physically reading cannot easily be replaced, however sophisticated the software or the user of audio. Ms. Kwong gives us a real-time snapshot of what it is like to be a student wrestling with the right to have Braille in places where it is needed and the attempt to make text-to-speech serve in situations in which a superior alternative exists. Here is what she says:
Have you ever considered whether reading something from a physical page is a right or a privilege? This question may not have occurred to those with sight because reading is an everyday activity. Reading is a normal part of daily life, a natural right. People with sight go to a bookstore, purchase a book, and immediately open it and begin to read. They can get the information from the page at exactly the moment their eyes move over the words. Braille readers like me are denied this right. Unfortunately, I am deprived of the opportunity to read physical print, and it is now deemed a "privilege" to read Braille.
I am diagnosed with Leber's congenital amaurosis and other causes that cumulatively result in the condition of legal blindness. My world is composed mainly of touch. I do not read print; my fingertips substitute for my eyes, and I perceive the world and obtain information using my hands.
I do not have the luxury of going into a bookstore and reading any book I desire within seconds of purchase. Transcribing literature into an accessible format is an extensive and tedious process. In order for me to read a textbook in Braille, I begin the process many months before class. I first select my courses in advance, contact the professors to obtain course syllabi and book lists, purchase and pick up the print books from the bookstore, and deliver them to the Alternative Media Center. I must then patiently wait for the staff to scan, proofread, and finally upload the material online so I can download and read the textbooks. Reciting the process alone causes anxiety and immense stress. The Alternative Media Center at UC Berkeley is short staffed, so the complete process can take an entire month; it is more difficult when professors do not post book lists until a week before class begins.
If my textbooks consist of tables, graphics, scientific formulas, or other diagrams, the difficulty of obtaining the material in a physical format increases. Textbooks for English and history courses can be read using electronic formats, but subjects that involve diagrams and formulas, such as statistics, require physical Braille books in order to understand the concepts. Normally, when I work on my assignments at home, I use my BrailleNote Apex. With the Apex I can physically read the numbers in Braille on the Braille display, and I can calculate my math more efficiently. During examinations, however, Braille students are permitted to use only Freedom Scientific's computer screen reader, Job Access with Speech (JAWS). This means I cannot physically read the exam and must instead rely on JAWS dictating it to me. When I attempt to find patterns, compute the correlation coefficient, or calculate standard deviations for a long data set, it is frustrating to have to base everything solely on listening and memory. If I would like to find the original numbers to calculate standard deviations, I must navigate word by word or number by number with JAWS to find the original list. With the BrailleNote I can scroll back more quickly to find relevant information. How I long just to read with my fingers and find the pertinent information I need expediently; these are the times when I am strongly convinced that I should have the same right to read text from a page as my sighted counterparts.
Print users can quickly draw tables and skim down or across columns and rows to obtain relevant information, while visually impaired JAWS users have to listen to the entire list of numbers before finding the necessary ones, which is exceedingly time consuming to do. Blind students like me are often forced to rely completely on auditory aids, meaning that we do not have a system of written records to help us organize information. This places us at a huge disadvantage. I have tried again and again to explain my situation, but the staff in proctoring services at Berkeley are extremely inflexible and do not listen to the needs of the students. Proctoring services have also postponed my exams on many occasions, causing other exams on the class syllabus to be delayed. The result is inconvenience and frustration for both the student and the professor. The proctoring service is unwilling to negotiate, causing many students and even some professors to believe that they should avoid the service altogether. Stresses for exams are doubled; besides worrying about knowing the material, I must consider when and how I will take the exam.
The screen reader itself is also limited in many ways. JAWS does not read certain math symbols such as delta, sigma, mu, etc. Thus I cannot read statistics formulas from my textbook. Rather than giving me insight into the world of mathematics, the limited information I do obtain flusters me because my questions are not answered. When I use the keyboard to scroll down and read with JAWS, it says "blank" when it lands on a mathematical formula, even though the notation is displayed on the screen. More complex figures are also unreadable with JAWS.
It is crucial that Braille readers be given the same opportunities to read as sighted ones. Reading tactile text is or should be a fundamental right; however, for visually impaired people it has become a rare privilege. This right of which we are deprived is a source of inconvenience and is detrimental to getting good grades. We must take action to alter such norms. If visually impaired students do not advocate for Braille literacy and stress its significance, Braille will soon become obsolete and a medium of purely historical interest.